2020/4/29 - Update 2020/5/1
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ASSURING CANADA’S DRINKING WATER SAFETY THROUGH A PANDEMIC
By Gillian Ward
As an essential service, Canada’s drinking water and wastewater operators, managers and regulators are hard at work through Covid-19 distancing measures.
Drinking water safety is generally managed by provincial or territorial authorities in Canada, with the federal department of Indigenous Service Canada responsible for support and oversight of First Nations water systems. Jurisdictional authorities perform routine site inspections, monitor water test results, and ensure compliance with Canadian Drinking Water Standards for public and environmental health and safety.
WaterToday checked in with jurisdictional authorities for drinking water Canada-wide to find out how systems are functioning with the added pressures brought to bear by the pandemic.
We found jurisdictions reporting business as usual inside the water plants. Some jurisdictions report that inspectors are tele-working, and in some cases, routine site inspections are on hold.
Confidence levels remain high in the maintenance of safe drinking water across the country. We have summarized the responses here:
*Sampling: where indicated, sampling within the distribution network may have been modified to respect physical distancing. Alternate sites have been arranged.
**Monitoring: lab test results are monitored by health authority inspectors as normal; in some instances, those inspectors may tele-work (from home).
***Routine Site Inspections (normally scheduled) may be on-hold, restricted to emergency or critical incident response only. In the case of ISC, inspections are reduced, respecting that some communities are closed to outside traffic.
While the majority of jurisdictions report no challenges due to physical distancing measures, Yukon and NT did offer some examples of issues that may impact remote communities in the weeks and months to come.
Spokesperson for Yukon submits, “While normal testing for chemical and bacteriological factors is ongoing as usual, there are fewer individuals traveling to remote communities.”
“The methods for getting samples into laboratories has changed logistically. Equipment and maintenance issues may arise in the next few months due to lack of availability of specialized staff for on site repairs. Companies providing specialized support services, such as calibration of equipment and pump repairs, may not be able to travel easily due to restrictions.”
With these challenges anticipated, contingency plans have been put in place, “to ensure Yukon’s Large Public Drinking Water Systems continue to operate in a safe manner.”
NT spokesperson reports, “Some communities are reporting higher than normal residential water use due to people being home. As a result, some communities are increasing their delivery schedule and/or waiving call-out fees. At this time, we have not experienced any interruptions with supply chains, but we are monitoring the situation to ensure communities have appropriate stockpiles. We have not experienced any particular water quality issues due to COVID-19.”
BC’s Coastal Health Authority advised that all work in maintaining drinking water safety and quality continues as usual, with the only change being in routine inspections held off. The plant operators will continue to test and submit samples for laboratory analysis, the Drinking Water Officers will continue to monitor these results as usual and drinking water advisories are still issued in the same manner.
Vancouver Coastal Health notice to water systems operators says, “Emergency response plans (ERPs) should be updated and staffing coverage procedures should be reviewed to plan for staff absences due to illness or isolation, as it is important that those experiencing flu-like symptoms do not come to the workplace.”
Community water facilities are encouraged to reach out to other nearby for mutual aid arrangements, and to contact the BC Environmental Operators Certification Program’s (EOCP) Peer Network for support.
WaterToday spoke with the CEO of BC’s Environmental Operators Certificate Program, Kalpna Solanki. Ms. Solanki developed the Operators Peer Network prior to Covid-19. She recently rallied Environmental Operators of British Columbia and Yukon, “for back-up phone or email support to communities experiencing staffing shortages”. Over 40 operators responded, offering to volunteer.
“Operators are incredibly generous, I’m just here connecting the people,” says Solanki. In cooperation with BC’s Provincial Health Officer, communities have been encouraged to set up mutual aid arrangements and update their Emergency Response Plans accordingly.
As of the time of our report, all systems across the country were reporting as functioning with their principal staff, no back up plans had been engaged.
Edwin Ananas is Chief of Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. We heard from Chief Ananas about how the local water plant in his community is functioning with the constraints of physical distancing.
Chief Ananas says, “We are okay so far, our water technician lives in the community, and can go to the plant everyday. It could be an issue if he gets sick and can’t go to work. We have other people in the community that can operate the water plant, but they did not pass the exam (not certified technicians). If we lose our (one) certified tech, we will lose our funding for the water plant.”
Loss of the water technician would not result in an immediate boil water advisory, however. Chief Ananas says even if the technician was off sick, the water plant would continue to operate, samples would continue to be taken and tested. A drinking water advisory would only be issued if the laboratory test results indicated as such.
Indigenous Services Canada is the federal department that oversees drinking water systems on First Nation communities. A spokesperson for ISC provided the following statement:
“The provision of safe water, sanitation and hygienic conditions is essential to protecting health and well-being, especially during an infectious disease outbreak. Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) and First Nations communities are working together to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on the continued provision of safe, clean drinking water, and effective treatment of wastewater, in First Nations communities. ISC remains in contact with First Nations communities across the country and back-up plans are in place to support continuity of water and wastewater service provision throughout the pandemic.”
Community-Based Water Monitors (CBWM) in all First Nations communities have been advised to suspend random testing in private homes during the Covid-19 measures.
Back-up staffing plans encountered through our inquiry include the following temporary measures allowed by BC Provincial Health Officer, to ensure continuity of safe water for 4.2 million residents served:
- Flexibility to redeploy and employ qualified Operators as needed to address staff shortages, reschedule Operator hours, and use Operators whose certification may have expired within the past 3 years.
- Temporarily employ certain other qualified individuals to perform operational duties, if needed. These individuals include knowledgeable technical personnel and supervisors, managers, professional engineers, technologists, and Operators.
Water treatment plants are further urged to:
- postpone non-critical projects to prioritize tasks essential to delivering potable water.
- Ensure facilities are well stocked with extra parts, equipment, PPE, chemicals and other resources in case of supply chain or worker shortages, and have a mutual assistance plan with neighbouring communities in case of supply shortages.
- Ensure they have a plan in case potable water cannot be supplied. This may include alternative water supplies, bulk water delivery, supplying bottled water or issuing public water notices (“boil water advisories”) to your water users.
- Ensure they have a communication plan to contact all affected water customers/users.
- Postpone any non-emergency works that require the temporary shutdown of the water supply to any portion of the service delivery area.
Water suppliers should contact their Drinking Water Officers:
- In any event where emergency response plans (ERP) are activated
- If updates to ERPs are made, water supplier should provide the revised copy to your district DWO.
- If the required sampling frequency cannot be maintained, please review ERPs and consult with district DWO.
- If there is a stoppage of water delivery for any reason.
BC Water users are advised to continue to use the water as previously directed by the water supplier:
Unless your water system is already on a Boil Water Notice, boiling your water is not required as a precaution against COVID-19.
Treated tap water is safe to use for handwashing. There are no indications that COVID-19 is in the drinking water supply or will affect the normal supply of water.
Other than your regular stock of emergency water, there is no need to purchase or use bottled water to reduce your risk of exposure to the virus.
As for the management and monitoring of wastewater treatment plants, WaterToday spoke with Jason Tratch, CEO of Proteus Waters, who operates a wastewater research and demonstration facility in Saskatchewan.
Tratch explains how “scatology”, (the study of biological waste materials) can be an effective foundation for studying and monitoring population health. The pandemic conditions have brought an imperative tone to the existing research program here.
“We have this ability to study, to analyze a community’s wastewater. Wastewater treatment needs to be integrated into proactive identification and monitoring of diseases. We were already looking at data and analytics systems, with participation from academics in Computer Science, Chemistry and Engineering, along with the provincial government’s Innovation program. We are looking at wastewater, for detection of health risks, to monitor, and to be able to notify the local health authorities. This is already being done in parts of Europe and can be a very valuable source of understanding for public health,” says Tratch.
Kalpna Solanki of the BC Environmental Operators echoes these comments with the statement that often, one community’s effluent can become the next community’s source water. Solanki reminds us of the North Battleford cryptosporidium outbreak that struck many thousands of residents with illness in 2001. Contamination of the surface water source was the primary cause of the outbreak, according to the Inquiry Report, with secondary and tertiary factors cited; poor record keeping, staff/management tension and reduced inspections.
“This is why it is so very important that both the drinking water and the wastewater are tested and monitored”, says Solanki.
The multiple layers of checks and balances in the Canadian drinking water system today have risen from the ashes of our greatest water challenges and tragedies.
WaterToday heard from Gregg Furtney, Director of Operations at Walkerton, Ontario (Municipality of Brockton), just ahead of the 20th Anniversary of the municipal water failure that resulted in the deaths of six residents. Over two thousand residents became ill as a result of drinking water contamination, through the month of May, 2000.
Much of what we now understand, the safe drinking water legislation and the diligence carried out in drinking water management in Canada stems from the Walkerton incident.
“Walkerton has had a significant change in landscape since the 2000 Water Crisis. Like many municipalities in Ontario, we've been utilizing a Multi-Barrier approach to protect our water sources and to provide clean potable water to our residents.”
Furtney says a comment often heard is that Walkerton “must have the cleanest drinking water in the province now,” adding his own family drinks the water straight from the tap.
As Walkerton’s Director of Operations sums up,
“There are lots of life lessons, personal and professional, to be had during and after a negative situation/ tragedy/crisis. Hope, patience, and compassion will guide us through to the end of all challenges.
Challenges can always provide opportunities. Sometimes you have to look hard for them and often times you don't.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly omitted the data for Nova Scotia in the provincial table.
More information on the situation in Newfoundland and Labrador, which was received after the initial publication, was also added to the article.
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